By Corey Van Landingham
All Heathens, by Marianne Chan. Sarabande Books, 74 pp., $15.95.
Field Music, by Alexandria Hall. Ecco, 77 pp., $16.99.
Bodega, by Su Hwang. Milkweed Editions, 94 pp., $16.00.
I don’t believe in perfect books. Especially not perfect debuts.
Part of what makes a first book so exciting is the wildness and idiosyncrasy that manifests in moments when an emerging poet can step outside of trends, fashions, imitations, and mannerisms. When the predictable debut subjects and structures fall away to introduce a new voice, a new way of seeing, a new sensibility.
More than novelty (or, perhaps, alongside novelty), what is most striking in a debut is ambition. With ambition comes risk, of course. If there is more attention to flaws here than one might expect in a review focusing on debut collections, it is because these are all books that do take significant risks—in subject, in tone, in form, in structure. They each alight on some new poetic territory. To alight is to have been, once, in flight. The poets under review here exhibit the ambition of those who dare to fly.
It has been a long time since I’ve encountered a debut as sophisticated as Marianne Chan’s All Heathens.
This book has an incredibly clear, though multi-faceted, focus. Like many first books, the poems touch upon adolescence, family, inheritance, tradition, religion, and sexuality, but all of these themes are viewed from and rendered by the very specific lens of the Filipino American. Rarely does a debut sustain its attention in such a manner. And rarely does a debut provide such a careful, intelligent organization. I’m often left wondering why on earth I have come to a section break here, baffled by what separates and tethers various sections of a book rather than aesthetic appearance. Often, if they do cohere, debut sections are chronological, or subject-based. All Heathens offers a more nuanced (though carefully plotted) sense of structure.
The first section establishes the world of Filipino Americans living in the United States. It is a world that contains the very-American stuff of Hot-N-Ready pizzas, the collapse of the auto-industry, and Buzz Aldrin. These staples, however, are mere background music compared to the historical figures significant to the Philippines—Raja Humabon, Magellan, Enrique of Malacca—that still inform, illuminate, and dominate these speakers’ lives. From the very beginning of this collection, Chan reveals the texture and depth of “American” culture, which is and has always been polyglot, intimately tied to other cultures, countries, and languages, as well as to violence.
“Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal”—the second poem in the collection—acts as a kind of primer for the complex web of “Fil Am” history and identity. The speaker guides us through this rehearsal, merging a skeptical, chatty tone with necessary information: “My mother is wearing paint // on her face, a candle on her head. You see, Sinulog is not / just a religious holiday, but a festival, a performance.” In charge of this dramatic, complicated performance, the speaker introduces us to the various characters present. “Someone’s white husband plays Magellan”; his wife “is playing a native Filipina.” “Someone’s muscular Fil Am son plays Lapu-Lapu, / who in real-life Filipino history, is known for slaying Magellan / with an iron sword.”
For all the humor in this vibrant scene (before this, the white husband’s wife teaches the speaker “the Bisaya word for masturbation,” which she keeps repeating for the laughter of the cast), the speaker-director’s urgency isn’t merely a slapstick performance for the poem. It is an urgency that extends from the moment Magellan steps foot on Homonhon Island to the present-day husbands meeting their Filipina wives on the internet. This is serious, and while “the community center fills with brown faces, laughing / and cheering” the speaker knows that “this play is for all of us, it is our reckoning.” It’s a vivacious, engaging scene and poem, and the dramatic performance allows Chan to combine historical fact with cultural symbolism and complexity that continues throughout the book:
In the poems that follow, an elegy to “Master” Magellan is dedicated to Enrique of Malacca, a man at a party says that he wants to own a Filipino, a family friend shows pictures of his bikini-clad Filipino wife. History is literally rehearsed in “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal” in order to carry out these other symbolic and insidious contemporary rehearsals.
In the book’s second section, we begin with the speaker’s recollection of living in Germany, a smart leap into poems that are much more concerned with geographical (versus historical) place. A father drives his sleeping children to Italy, where the speaker’s youthful writings in her journal (“I wrote ‘ciao = hello & goodbye’”) are the benign correlative to Antonio Pigafetta’s travel journal from the Philippines. The poems in this section poems also take place in the Philippines, at a Seafood City in the desert, and on the Internet. Chan explicitly designates the Internet as a very specific kind of place:
And in the final section of All Heathens, the poems become more concerned with language, specifically Bisaya, as a way to reveal the many distances between the speaker and the Philippines, speaker and family. Not only do we get a more documentary look into Pigafetta’s violent and incomplete cataloguing of the Bisaya language, but the speaker’s struggle to recall that very language (“Most likely, Pigafetta’s list of heathen words excluded the word for ‘mother’ because the items he named were limited to merchandise”). Attending the viewing service of a family member over FaceTime, the speaker is at a literal loss of words: “All I can think of // is that I don’t remember the Bisaya word for head, / for body.”
The disconnect between the speaker’s life and that of her family in the Philippines is even more palpable in “Cebu City.” In this multi-sectioned poem, we watch the speaker and her cousin together in the titular city. There is a clear tension between the two figures early on in the poem: “C. says I am preoccupied, / that I am homesick // and tired of her.” And the speaker is indeed preoccupied, presumably with worries much different than that of her cousin, evident in these spare, self-aware lines:
Self-aware, but not self-flagellating. Clear-eyed. Such perception extends to how the speaker views her cousin as well: “C. is subservient. // She cleans my room / though I ask her to stop.” Below is the last section of this poem in full. In this crucial moment in the collection, the historical, colonial violence carried out not only against the Filipino people but also their language is not as explicitly present as it is in previous poems, but it still disturbs the speaker’s linguistic efforts.
The accumulation of these skillfully curated sections—in this poem, but also in the collection as a whole—creates unflinching yet tender portraits of lived diasporic realities. Of the desires and fears, distances and proximities, conflicts and celebrations that are borne from generations of people who have left home, who have had their home taken from them, who know that “on earth, / home is a fluid thing, a shape- / shifter.”
If I had one hesitation when reading All Heathens, it is perhaps an unfair one—that the book is so expertly structured, so thematically controlled, that I almost missed some of the recklessness, the wildness, that often accompanies a debut. But then I think of how ambitious Chan’s book is in its scope, how well the poet toggles between lyric and narrative, how much I enjoy the complexity of this mind.
Keep track of this poet—it’s almost frightening to think that such an intelligent, controlled collection is only her debut.
It is difficult, sometimes, for poetic wildness to stand apart from an undisciplined poetry. Wildness is not merely rapid transformation (of diction, of tone, of subject), not disorganized structure, not dismantled syntax, not one toe dipped into the world of the surreal. It is not a pseudo-theoretical eschewing of sense or clarity. These are characteristics, though, that often pass as wild (as well as ones that hide not having all that much to say).
The wildness within Alexandria Hall’s debut collection, Field Music, reminds me less of contemporary forays into poetic weirdness, and more of the work of a poet like Hopkins—intensity of spirit bursting against, and often rupturing, formal boundaries. The natural world and rural background certainly inform this intensity, but the shrewd, quite-contemporary speakers who navigate and interrogate the pastoral landscape of Vermont also speak from the Met, a rooftop screening, Cusco, the state fair. Cezanne, Bernini, Rilke, and Burke coexist with “shit-covered fields,” a father’s “trailer on the goat farm,” bonfires of trash, the accents of idears and crick, .22s and state troopers. But again, unlikely juxtaposition does not a wild poem make.
It’s something more like a sensibility, which is difficult to pin down. An unchartered intensity is one of the ways I conceive of wildness. Of course this would be different for other readers. (A poem can surely be intense without being wild—Plath comes to mind here.) Perhaps an example is useful. Here is the last poem in Field Music:
There are plenty of measured, almost flat, stagnant moments here—“Accident happens casually.” But it is precisely a moment like that, a kind of stone landing or precipice, where the poem gathers energy and speed. From there, we get a series of leaps. A leaping logic, but also a leaping sound; the alliteration from the first stanza returns, but here it is mixed with subtle assonance and internal rhyme (break/way/hay/lay, kiddo/whoa/phone/low). Then the sonic takes over—“Lo hello high hay”—and we’re in the realm of pure song now, in language and in subject. The song is “what stays” alongside the violent sounds of “the crash / of the tractor, the trash compactor.” The poem is idling, then whirring, then revving, like those “machines / full of love.” This is not the calm pastoral music of the initial bleating goats and bellowing cows, but the wild music of man-made pain.
As this poem displays, wildness does not imply an abandoning of control—the structure and speed and sound are carefully crafted here. And there are a number of these stunning poems in Field Music. I do wish, though, that such control manifested throughout the entirety of the collection. Like most debuts, this is an uneven book, in organization and in the poems themselves. It’s refreshing to encounter the interweaving of poems that approach family, place, desire, and art throughout a collection, versus a chronological or thematic-based approach to order. Why, then, the two sections? They seem to be doing the same kinds of work, offer the same kinds of poems. And there is also a risk that the collection appears unmoored in its concerns, subjects, and tones. Part of Hall’s project is an explosion of tidy perceptions of a rural poetics. She shows an unwillingness for place to be a comfortable anchor, and refuses to do what is expected with a rural place. I’m reminded of C.D. Wright’s self-diagnosis: “I’m country but sophisticated.” Hall is equally suspicious of such a binary. She gives us an essayistic prose poem titled “On Beauty” followed by a poem that chronicles a family’s rural accent (“Mom says ancient / like ank-shint”) and detritus (vultures and scrap metal).But throw in poems of travel, adolescent narratives, ludic catalogues, and the book’s focus gets a little muddled. The moments of humor and vitriol help guard against self-seriousness and provide a rich tonal landscape. Some poems, though, begin to sound like Lana Del Rey lyrics:
This seems to be a self-mocking tone, but one can’t quite get enough of a tonal foothold to be sure of the speaker’s stance, the poem’s stakes.
Still, these are common slips in a debut, and there are a number of poems in Field Music that stand out and stand up against many of the decade’s first books. The opening poem, “Cowbirds,” should appear in eco-poetry anthologies. And its first line provides one of the most important ideas that links the poems that follow: “All of this damage is already done.” The damage is largely focused on the self and the family, but it is also the damage of place, of those broken fields. “Sometimes we can’t see / the dangers we feed,” that first poem admits. One of those dangers is “a deep and doubling //hunger,” a human hunger that leads to destruction: “runoff dragged into the river”; a son hitting his father “till the state troopers strobed / the kitchen.”
“If you keep kicking somebody, music / will come out eventually” ends the title poem. Field Music is informed by a brutal music, a music that comes from violence and accidents. How Hall conceives of the self when exposed to such dangers is smart, and shows her firm grasp on the lyric. This book is full of pits, holes, edges, pores, a desire to be like “a system of pipes.” These are voids the breath crosses, flute-like, to make something new. “Look, I found elegance / in a grease pit,” the speaker announces. She’s surely self-mocking, self-aware here. Elegance—refined grace—seems opposed to wildness. The poems in Field Music show that elegance is not merely bourgeois decoration, but a product of the work of language, of music, of sight. Elegance is also simple beauty—“the words in the marrow”—which can, of course, be wild.
Su Hwang’s Bodega begins with “a collective moan,” a sound expressed from the various patrons gathered inside a New York bodega. They are listening to the Yankees lose via “a transistor radio with foil-tipped antennae.” The poem unfolds on a stifling summer day, but the scene inside has its own internal weather, its own dynamic (if banal) rhythm. The bodega doors admit a “gust of wet heat.” The refrigerator doors let escape an “arctic blast.” In addition to the broadcasted game, the poem introduces a vibrant soundscape. Manholes hiss, change rattles. We hear the doors’ suction, the bell’s chime. The figures inside the bodega are Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Pakistani, and they complete their own transactional dance within the space. One man’s taxi has a broken air conditioner. Another walks with a cane. As that collective moan confirms, they’re losing together. The poem, though, doesn’t press the communal response to the Yankees game into some ameliorative, democratic lesson. Rather, each of the figures inside the bodega appears entirely separate from one another. They may show each other forms of care (the Pakistani man spots the Nigerian man a dollar for his groceries and scratch offs), but they enter and exit the space alone.
It’s a canny move to begin in such a space, such a scene. Hwang’s debut collection not only enters but intimately limns the intricacies of the bodega, the corner store, the dry cleaner. Such intricacies include poems navigating domestic violence, xenophobia, and racism through a variety of lenses—personal, generational, public, and their unavoidable intertwining. The aforementioned poem (like many of the poems that follow it) provides a real, tangible place for familial, economic, and violent interactions to transpire. This is the kind of work I look for in a debut collection, the ability to draw complex connections between the self and the world.
The first section of Bodega does this quite well. An abecedarian recounts nearly mystic wisdoms borne out of the graveyard shift (“We pray to the same source”; “Remember, abundance is found within; “Wager that fear is not our common dialect”). We’re given the grief, belief, and language of immigrants. Youthful wonder (“Our Ford Grenada was the center / of my universe”) set alongside parental bickering that slides into abuse. Hwang does a remarkable job, in these opening poems, of creating small, tense spaces, where the slightest movement may turn into a looming threat.
Such tension is found in the poem “Latchkeys,” printed here in its entirety:
There is much to be said for the craft of this poem alone (the subtle threat of breaking the line on “hit,” the verb “greeting” exposing a terrible irony of the family’s routine), but what most impresses me is Hwang’s choreography. One could stage this scene. I almost see it backlit, as if I’m watching it from the audience—the fraught domestic space scripted in a way that resembles a merging of Raymond Carver and Cho Nam-Joo. Here, in “Latchkeys,” little discursive language is needed to impart the pressure-cooker atmosphere. The daughter and son display their “perfectly choreographed” routine, but the repetition never dulls the sense of danger. At any moment, some snag in their rehearsal of the domestic routine could turn into a tragedy.
A smart, early poem in Bodega, “Latchkeys” introduces us to a recurring set of characters (speaker/daughter, brother/son, mother, father) and a tension that we watch transform into abuse in the following three poems, as well as the chemicals that presumably lead, later in the book, to the father’s cancer. This is Hwang’s talent and potential—forming and exposing dire personal situations that stem from dire socio-political and economic contexts. As we are well aware, these are inextricable. But Hwang dramatizes how tangled they truly are.
I hope it’s clear how strong the first section of this book is, for it is, at least partly, that very strength that makes the following sections of the book slightly underwhelming in contrast. The writing becomes noticeably slack, where Hwang seems caught between a stylized narrative chattiness, the pared down lyric utterance, and a reportorial ken. Any of these would be welcome here. But the voice doesn’t yet seem confident enough to modulate across poems, let alone throughout an entire collection.
These issues are most evident in the long, multi-sectioned title poem, “Bodega.” This poem offers glimpses into the daily life of Mrs. And Mr. Kim (the owners of the bodega), Raul (one of their employees), Joseph (a patron), and Sandy (another patron). Mrs. Kim hoped, “in a past life,” to be a concert pianist. Mr. Kim was once a respected journalist. Raul works multiple jobs, and has presumably immigrated to the United States, leaving behind a wife and three children; “he once farmed his own land.” Joseph is first introduced as “A Black man” seen by a needlessly alarmed Mrs. Kim; he “takes care of his daughter, was raised by a single mother, works nights as a security guard, volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club, sings in a church choir.” Sandy assumes the owners of the bodega to be Chinese (“she / can hear herself saying ching-chong-ching-chong / to that new girl in elementary school years ago”); she is an addict, and a thief, and we see her in the process of stealing cans of food.
There is such a fervent desire here to establish the backgrounds of all of these characters that the writing itself seems to take a backseat to information. Furthermore, the stakes of the poem are quite high—we’re encountering, in present tense, an incredibly charged scene of racism and xenophobia. Mrs. Kim is so unnerved by Joseph’s mere presence that it seems as though she (or her absent husband) may be on the brink of some horrific action—when in fact it’s Sandy who is the thief. The poem, though, boils down to being an unsettling scenario, with simplified portrayals of these various figures caught in a web of prejudice. Instead of nuanced portraiture of these characters and their biases, they seem more like caricatures. The impulse behind the poem is commendable, its project ambitious. I love to see this risk—writing about the many layers and faces of intolerance—especially in a debut book. But the poem is reducible to summary: “No one ever suspects the young blonde girl / who cleans up real nice. Suckers.” In addition to this being a painfully obvious statement, it only verges on stepping into the world, and the voice, of Sandy. The entirety of the poem is in third person, but a close third person that implies the vision and statements of each figure belong to them, not the poet. While it is an entirely different poem—a persona poem, told in sustained first person—I long for the recklessness and texture of the voice in a work like Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead.” Perhaps part of Hwang’s poem’s project is to not sensationalize bigotry, to show, instead, its quotidian, mundane occurrences. The voices and figures could still be more singular, however, their backgrounds and desires less predictable.
Su Hwang’s vision, though—the sites of her attention, the too-often-overlooked places and people that work their way into her poems—is incredibly mature, reaching beyond the navel-gazing of many first books. I keep returning to that “collective moan” and the notions of what experiences can and cannot be shared by proximity alone. The poems in Bodega introduce a deeply ethical poet who will surely continue to develop a memorable poetic voice.
Corey Van Landingham, a contributing editor, is the author of Antidote and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, forthcoming from Tupelo Press. She is a recipient of an NEA Fellowship and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.